Asif Ali Zardari emerges from Benazir’s shadow to be Pakistan’s president for 2nd time

He is the first civilian to secure a second term

Pakistan president (File) Pakistan's new President Asif Ali Zardari | AFP

Known for his uncanny skill to strike unlikely political alliances and win over his rivals through a policy of reconciliation', Asif Ali Zardari emerged from the shadow of his late spouse Benazir Bhutto to become one of Pakistan's most resilient political figures.

Zardari, 68, was elected president of the country on Saturday for the second time, a record for any civilian, after serving in the same position from 2008 to 2013.

Born in 1955 in Karachi to Hakim Ali Zardari, a Sindhi landlord, businessman, and politician, the young Zardari came to prominence in 1987 after his marriage with Benazir Bhutto, the daughter of former president Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was hanged in 1979 during the reign of military ruler Ziaul Haq for his alleged involvement in a murder.

Zardari had been working under the grand shadow of his towering spouse, Benazir until her assassination in a terrorist attack in 2007.

Tempers were running high after the gruesome killing of Benazir in a gun and bombing attack in Rawalpindi, especially in her home province of Sindh, where slogans were raised against Pakistan.

Zardari rose to the occasion and chanted his famous slogan, Pakistan Khapay', which in the Sindhi language means Long live Pakistan', in a timely response to Pakistan na khapay' by the angry supporters of Bhutto.

Soon after Benazir's death, Zardari faced the double challenge of keeping the dynastic Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) united and under his control and carving out a place for himself in the political landscape of the coup-prone country.

It was feared that the PPP might fall to pieces and that members of Bhutto's family would claim leadership of the party.

To forestall claims by the remaining family members of the Bhutto family, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto played a masterstroke and announced that he was adding the Bhutto surname with the names of his son Bilawal and daughters Bakhtawar and Aseefa.

For himself, he decided to play the role of an elder statesman by embarking on the path of the politics of reconciliation.

Under his tutelage, his son Bilawal Zardari, who was by then rechristened Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari in his media appearance after his mother, raised the slogan democracy is the best revenge', a different route to the path of reconciliatory politics.

Following the murder of Benazir, the PPP got a sympathy vote and came to power in 2008, with Zardari elected as the president.

During his first term, Zardari used his presidential powers to send a constitutional reference to the Supreme Court in 2011 to answer questions about the hanging of Bhutto.

In a coincidence, the apex court, after sitting over the case for years, finally issued its opinion on March 6 this year, just days before his election for the second time, ruling that Bhutto was not given a fair triala great victory for Zardari and his supporters.

His main contribution had been willingly relinquishing all presidential powers, which his predecessor General Pervez Musharraf had usurped by making changes to the Constitution.

Zardari empowered Parliament by restoring the true spirit of the 1973 Constitution through the 18th Amendment and restoring the powers of the elected prime minister. Through the same amendment, he empowered the provinces by delegating at least eighteen ministries from the centre to the provinces.

Despite his apparent transformation after Benazir's death, Zardari has been haunted by his shady past due to his alleged involvement in cases of mega corruption during the two terms of his wife as prime minister, when he earned the derogatory nickname of Mr 10 per cent' for allegedly getting his share of bribes in development projects.

He was implicated in many cases of corruption and spent several years behind bars, even facing custodial violence, but he was neither convicted nor lost his trademark smile, and, ultimately, he was cleared in all cases.

However, his opponents were never convinced of his innocence and claimed that he got the benefit of the flawed accountability and judicial system and went scot-free.

As he starts his second term in office, the country faces a battered economic and political system with a greater need for reconciliation than any time before, and Zardari's innate ability to bring people with clashing ideas to the table would be put to the test.

He may have to play a role in bringing about a reconciliation between the new government and jailed former prime minister Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party which has claimed that their mandate was stolen in the February 8 elections.


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